On the night of Wednesday June 17, 2015 at 9:05 p.m., a 21-year-old white gunman named Dylann Storm Roof fired upon a Bible Study group at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. All the victims were black which included 9 killed, particularly senior black pastor Clementa C. Pinckney who’s also a Democratic state senator as well as a one wounded but survived. And they were all black. It was the deadliest attack on an American place of worship since the 1991 mass murder of Wat Promkunaram Buddhist temple in Waddell, Arizona in which nine people also died. And it was the largest American mass shooting since the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting. My thoughts, condolences, heart, and prayers goes out to the survivors as well as members of Emmanuel A. M. E. Church, the victims’ families, and the African American community.
What happened in Charleston was a senseless act of terror resulting in 9 senseless deaths and an entire community engulfed in tragedy. What’s even uglier about this tragedy is that it was motivated by racial hatred which was born out of the sad American legacy of slavery that gave rise to white supremacy as an ideology. Even today, though racism is no longer seen as acceptable, it still remains embedded in our systems and institutions as well as in the minds of many of America’s citizens. It’s a toxic ideology that has plagued so much of our culture that as much as I try to fight what I see as hatred plain as day, sometimes even I feel that I’m not above the destructive influence of our infectious racist climate. I am aware of white privilege and probably have benefited from it, even though I may not even know it. But whatever racist thoughts I may have, I am well aware of how unjustifiable they are. Just because I may have it better than some blacks due to the color of my skin does not mean that I am any better or worse than any other black person. And that blacks should be considered as human beings and able to enjoy the same rights as any American citizen. Unfortunately, too many whites don’t seem to see it that way, especially in South Carolina and that’s a problem.
This is not the first time Emanuel A.M.E Church has experienced racially motivated violence and I’m certain it won’t be the last. From its founding in 1816, it had seen a long share of violence in the name of white supremacist hate. It began as an illegal church at a time when black churches were outlawed in Charleston and South Carolina prohibited black literacy. It was subject to raids by city officials in 1818, 1820, and 1821. In 1822, one of the church’s founders named Denmark Vessey was implicated in an alleged slave revolt, was arrested and subject to a secret trial along with five other alleged organizers, and executed. The original building was then burned to the ground by white supremacists. By the time it was rebuilt, Charleston had already banned all black churches compelling the congregants to meet in secret until the end of the Civil War in 1865. And as far as black churches go, Emanuel wasn’t the only one subject to white supremacist terrorism either since other black churches have had their share, especially in the South where they have been pillars among the African American communities they served. Many black churches were involved in the Civil Rights Movement as well as acted as sanctuaries from racism and for civil rights rallies. Churches were prime targets by white supremacists terrorists. One of the most famous is the 1963 Klu Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama which killed 4 young girls and called by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “one of the most vicious and tragic crimes ever perpetrated against humanity.” Add this to the fact that many blacks were victims of white supremacist violence during the Civil Rights Era mainly because they simply dared to demand equal rights, which many whites didn’t want to happen. White supremacist terrorism was seen as a way to punish black communities and maintain control by creating a climate of terror and fear that would make black political organizing of demonstrations, sit-ins, and other forms of protest impossible.
It should be obvious to everyone that what happened in Charleston was nothing but a premeditated white supremacist terrorism, which every citizen in this country should take very seriously and part of a long and painful history of politically motivated white violence against blacks. Even if you’re a foreigner who knows absolutely nothing about American History, the mere details in this case should entail that Roof’s nefarious deed was a hate crime. For one, Roof was in the church an hour before he started shooting and reloaded his gun five times. This indicates that he came prepared. Second, one survivor recalled one of the victims asking Roof why he’s doing this in which he reportedly replied, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Anyone who understands race relations in the southern US should know that the image of a black man raping a white woman is a very pervasive one that had been used as an excuse for whites to systematically justify their racism against blacks, especially when it involves the worst forms violence such as lynchings. But this image is seen in Birth of a Nation in which the scene of the Klu Klux Klan lynching a black man is seen as a noble act of heroism (of course, the racism in this movie is extremely vile). And it’s also unfortunate that it led to a KKK revival explaining why its membership numbered to 6 million in 1925 despite being highly racist even by the standards of 1915). It’s present in the minds of the whites of Depression era Maycomb County, Alabama in To Kill a Mockingbird despite the fact that Tom Robinson was 100% innocent of doing anything to hurt Mayella Ewell besides being too nice to her for his own good but is wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury anyway. Not only that, but Roof was said to be shouting racist epithets while gunning down each of the victims and those who managed to survive played dead. Roof might’ve intended at least one person to survive and tell the tale, but I’m not exactly sure. Third, Roof’s Facebook page contains pictures of him with very white supremacist imagery such as the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) as well as a Confederate flag license plate. Fourth, even the people who knew Roof can recall how he expressed his support for racial segregation, his intention to start another civil war, his claim that, “blacks were taking over the world,” and his intentions to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston. He also had a criminal record prior to the incident as well. All this establishes the fact that Roof was a bonafide racist and his crimes were racially motivated. We should never think otherwise. If the Klu Klux Klan’s racial violence against racial, ethnic, and/or religious minorities should be considered terrorism, then so should Dylann Roof’s as well as anyone else who does the same. The motivation on the Emanuel A.M.E. Church shooting was to terrorize black people.
However, as far as American racism is concerned, the Charleston shooting is just the tip of the iceberg. Even today, the discrimination and injustices against African Americans are just too innumerable for me to describe in detail. And even if I could, then I’m sure whatever I say about them can never do justice for so many African Americans who have been harmed by them. But all too often I’ve heard of how blacks have been disproportionately and negatively affected buy such things as mass incarceration, Stand Your Ground laws, police misconduct and brutality, redlining, environmental discrimination, voter ID laws, misconduct by the criminal justice system, racial profiling, gerrymandering, the War on Drugs, destructive stereotypes aimed at poor blacks, rap artists being called out on promoting violence, sex, and butchering the English language (as well as having their songs being marketed like that), a lot of forms of workplace and education discrimination, having their accomplishments downplayed or outright ignored in the American history books, being depicted as either violent brutes or unable to save themselves without white intervention in Hollywood movies, being underrepresented in all spheres of American life, gentrification, being subject to police intervention and media derision even in their most legitimate protests, inadequate public schooling, and the list goes on. Now the American South isn’t the only place in the country where blacks have experienced racism and injustice by hateful whites, but it’s basically the worst offender, especially South Carolina. It’s well known that slavery treated blacks less than people whose only purpose was to serve their masters without expecting much in return and no prospect of being freed. And we all know that the South seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy so most of the African American population can be considered property, not people, which resulted in a bloody 4-year war over it (a lost cause that was never in any way honorable). It’s also well known that racial segregation and Jim Crow laws were put in place so that blacks would be kept separate from whites and not have any political or any other power to assert themselves. They were also terrorized and lynched by white supremacists in the South if they ever dared to vote, demand their rights, purchased land, or owned successful businesses. Sure, racism might not be as blatant or acceptable as it once was, especially when we have a democratically elected black president, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there and that it’s not a problem. Because if the Charleston shooting has taught us anything, it’s that racism still exists and that it’s a problem. And in the South, it’s particularly bad.
How do I know this? Because the United States is suffused with perverse symbolism that legitimizes anti-black violence and no place in the country is more notorious for this than the American South. This being because it’s the area most likely to embrace the nostalgia of the antebellum Old South and the ideology of the Neo-Confederate “Lost Cause” which portrays the Confederate struggle against the Union as noble one that had absolutely nothing to do with slavery (despite evidence to the contrary). Thus, this leads to white Southerners glorifying and possibly revering their American past as well as perpetuating racist ideas, instead of actually learning that subjugating an entire group of people into involuntary servitude on the basis color is inherently wrong. Sure your average redneck might not mean any harm if he puts a Confederate flag on his pickup truck, other than perhaps showing his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd. And of course, he may not even intend to send a message to impressionable or perhaps disturbed young white men like Dylann Roof that African Americans are less-than-equal members of the political community and that using illegal violence against their interests is justified or that it’s noble to fight and die for the purpose of enslaving black people even if it means betraying your country. In fact, he might not be racist against black people at all (or so he says). But your average redneck might not know that like words, symbols carry meanings that stand independently of any individual’s subjective intentions, which can lead to even the most non-racist but nevertheless passionate Lynyrd Skynyrd fan be mistaken for a racist or believing that lawless pursuit of white supremacy is not necessarily wrong and may at times be worthy of celebration.
But it’s not just Lynyrd Skynyrd fans who have a problem with white supremacist symbolism or even ideas. To this day, South Carolina continues to fly a Confederate flag on the grounds of its state capitol. In the city of Charleston itself, you will find Emanuel A.M.E. is on Calhoun Street, named after antebellum politician and political theorist John C. Calhoun, best known for defending slavery as something positive, distrusting majoritarianism, championing the idea of nullification which states that individual states have a right to declare federal laws null and void if they viewed them unconstitutional, and helping to escalate Southern threats of secession in the face of mounting Northern abolitionist sentiment. Not exactly a guy you’d want to name a street after but despite dying 11 years before the Civil War, he’s fairly influential in American politics, mostly for the worse. A mile and the half of Emanuel A.M.E. is a public park featuring a monument “to the Confederate Defenders of Charleston” commemorating, you know, a bunch of guys who broke off from their country as well as fought and died to keep blacks under involuntary servitude. In Tennessee, you have no less than a high school, a state park, and a university ROTC building named after Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest best known for allegedly being the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan (a fact even namesake Forrest Gump admits) as well as being accused of war crimes for allowing forces under his command to massacre hundreds of black Union Army and white Southern Unionist POWs, an incident surrounded in controversy to this day. Prior to the war, he was slave trader. But even this doesn’t keep Tennesseans from putting his bust at the State Capitol in Nashville, dedicating 32 historical markers linked to him (more than resident US presidents Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Andrew Johnson), and celebrating July 13 as “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” which is an official state holiday. Confederate President Jefferson Davis has not only a statue in the US Capitol Rotunda, but also a highway in Northern Virginia as well as counties in Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas named after him. And this guy owned a Mississippi cotton plantation of over 100 slaves, believed every state was sovereign and had an unquestionable right to secede from the Union (and continue to do so for the rest of his life), did a terrible job as president of the Confederacy and was highly unpopular, fled the country for a time after a two year imprisonment on the charge of treason, and flushed his own shit into the street of his Richmond home (not exactly relevant or his fault, but true). Davis was no hero and defended the South’s actions until the day he died as well as believed in a Southern social order, according to historian William Cooper, “a democratic white polity based firmly on dominance of a controlled and excluded black caste.” And that doesn’t even bring me to discuss the more than dozen public schools named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee and others save maybe James Longstreet who became a Republican, led an African American regiment against white supremacists during Reconstruction in 1874, and supported civil rights for blacks (but he’s not among the South’s most liked Confederate generals and is usually the one whom most Southerners blame for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg, possibly the war). Or the streets of Charleston being named after Confederate generals as well with the exception of James Longstreet if his name is even on a street sign.
Unfortunately, despite that the Charleston church shooting was 100% racially motivated terrorism, some whites Americans go to great lengths to say why this isn’t the case for various reasons. For one, much of the Republicans’ success depends on a lot of support from conservative Southern whites, many of whom are either believers of the “Lost Cause” narrative or at least tend to have a nodding appreciation for the Confederate side of the American Civil War. For a Republican to say that this tragedy was an act of white supremacist terrorism would be to alienate a considerable portion of the electorate who don’t want to be seen responsible for it. Sure Dylann Roof might’ve been a nutjob but he wasn’t an island onto himself and any mental illness he may have doesn’t excuse his actions. Besides, it’s as clear as day that he was a white supremacist who flaunted it (though he was probably influenced by his family and the culture he grew up in). Secondly, the white South doesn’t want to change or own up to anything pertaining to periods of race relations they’d rather nostalgize and romanticize. And even Southern whites who may not have anything against blacks might feel that taking down a Confederate flag or a name like Calhoun or of a Confederate Civil War general would be an affront to Southern pride and Southern culture. But such nostalgia on the “Lost Cause” and the Old South is very toxic when it comes to a group of people who were once subjugated to one of the worst human rights abuses in history during that same time.
So conservatives tend to say that the church shooting was an Anti-Christian terrorist attack while trying to appeal to the Fundamentalist Christian persecution complex. Sure the shooting took place at a church, but it was at this historic black church known for its involvement in the Civil Rights Movement as well as associated with a man implicated in a slave revolt. If Dylann Roof really hated Christianity, he could’ve just fired upon any Christian place of worship he wished and I’m sure he didn’t have to be too picky on potential Christian victims, especially in South Carolina. Race is the heart of what went on in Charleston and it’s very clear that Roof’s a white supremacist who probably sees blacks as no more than dirt. While persecution of Christians isn’t unknown in American history, it usually applied to a particular denomination like Catholics, Quakers, Jehovah Witnesses, or Mormons among the most targeted groups since their religious practices didn’t conform to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ideal to the dismay of some Americans, not Christianity in the general sense of the term. Besides, when it came to attacks on black churches, the white attackers were probably as faithful churchgoing Christians as their black victims despite having a funny way of showing it (and used their faith to justify why blacks were inferior). So no, the Charleston shooting had absolutely nothing to do with religion.
But what I think can be even more toxic in the United States is the idea of racial apathy. A lot of white Americans may have racist attitudes because they benefit so much from white privilege and were never subject to racism themselves. Thus, these white Americans are more likely to deny that racism still exists and consider it a thing of the past. But this also leaves them vulnerable to believing a lot of highly racist things and negative stereotypes whether told by Fox News, the mainstream media, Hollywood, family members, the education system, or other areas. Because racism infects the people in ways they wouldn’t recognize. So when a racially motivated act of violence makes front page news, these whites either go out of their way to argue why it wasn’t about race or will simply be peeved when somebody addresses race as a factor. Sometimes they’d simply wouldn’t care and view what went on in Baltimore as nothing more than a meaningless riot or just get sick of the words, “Black Lives Matter.” To them, racism isn’t currently a problem because it’s not their problem. But many of them would be willing to play the reverse discrimination card whenever a person of color is luckier than them (such as super entitles whites suing over affirmative action because they didn’t get into a particular college they wanted) or if racial minority person is either more successful than or promoted over them. Sometimes when they themselves are called out for their racist comments (if their response isn’t that a certain negative racial caricature is grounded in fact). And if a person of color is elevated to a high position of power or leadership, well, these people would unconditionally hate them for absolutely no reason other than the color of their skin. I know people like this and I’m appalled at they believe in such ideas as well as sometimes feel guilty of not calling them out on it to avoid making a scene. But such racial apathy doesn’t solve anything and gives a silent license to ignore problems and continue the systematic and institutional discrimination blacks and other persons of color experience every day of their lives.
But I believe white Americans can fight racism not but not by being white saviors that Hollywood thinks. The Civil Rights Movement was primarily one led by black activists and organizations while antislavery movements wouldn’t have the kind of legitimacy they did unless the voices of former slaves and free blacks were heard. However, if whites should stand up to racism, then they must acknowledge our racism filled past for what it is and dispose all notions of nostalgia and romanticism of times when racial minorities were subject to systematic and institutional discrimination. We must also acknowledge the racism entrenched in our society as well as how it’s a serious problem in our country that needs addressed. And we must acknowledge and fight any racists attitudes we harbor within ourselves. Now none of this will be easy but I can’t exaggerate the urgency necessity of such actions, especially when a guy not much younger can me can open fire on a church filled with black people. We can’t turn out backs on that and say that racism isn’t a problem just because it doesn’t affect us. Thus, we’d be not much better than the white supremacists who carry out the violence themselves or how our culture gives racial minorities the short end of the stick. As long as whites continue to glorify and celebrate the Old South and the “Lost Cause,” racism will continue in very nasty ways. As long as whites don’t acknowledge that displaying a Confederate flag at your house is a very, very bad way to show your love for Lynyrd Skynyrd, there will be some nuts there interpreting such symbols at their worst connotations as well as committing violent acts of terror against African Americans. And as long as whites side with white perpetrators on behalf of “Stand Your Ground,” instead of their innocent unarmed victims as well as feel that the mantra, “Black Lives Matter,” and protests against systematic racial injustice is a meaningless waste of time, then there will be another Charleston. We can’t let this go on and we can’t let white people not to care.
And the fight against racism can start when we pressure South Carolina to take down that racist Confederate flag for it’s a symbol of white supremacy, not a symbol of pride. Any white person wishing to express Southern pride or love for Lynyrd Skynyrd should use something else.